Changing the world, one veg at a time
If you eat, you’re in. This is the motto of Incredible Edible – a grassroots movement which aims to change the way we think about our place in the world. We all need to eat, of course, but Incredible Edible is not just about food. It’s about our collective responsibility to each other, our need to pursue sustainable economic activity, and our desire to live healthier, happier lives.
Founded in 2008 by Pam Warhurst in her home town of Todmorden, Yorkshire, Incredible Edible seeks to harness the power of ordinary people to change the world. How? Through planting fruit and vegetables, anywhere and everywhere they can. More than a decade on, the organisation has a thriving network of groups and partners across the UK.
Ahead of her keynote at Disruption Summit Public Sector on March 24th, Disruption North caught up with Warhurst to find out more.
More than fruit and veg
Central to Warhurst’s beliefs is the ability of collective action to effect positive change. By growing fruit and vegetables on unused land in public places, encouraging locals to get involved, and giving them the produce to take home and eat, Incredible Edible members create a visible manifestation of a kinder and more connected community.
Embedded in this work are principles such as active citizenship, healthy living, and – importantly – having the courage to do things differently.
“We’ve reached a point with Incredible Edible where we’re saying to local authorities, ‘Just look at what people can achieve. Could you learn from them and do something differently?” says Warhurst. “Take the NHS. It is struggling with a client base that’s far too big to cope with unless every taxpayer puts a lot more money into the service. So why don’t we look at it differently…”
“The stats show that around 20 per cent of doctors visits are from people who are lonely and need to connect with someone. Then you’ve got another large tranche of people who go there with issues relating to their lifestyle. So, if you can address these groups to make them more active, to make them feel good and valued and alive, then the money saved from not seeing them can be spent on patients who do need to be medically treated.”
If you want something doing…
This desire to shake up the status quo reaches back to the very beginning of Incredible Edible, when volunteers took over land in front of a derelict health centre without permission.
“We built some raised beds, grew some food and slowly, people started to gather round it, pick it and talk about it,” says Warhurst. “About a year afterwards I was talking to a lady in the local NHS and she said, ‘I’m so pleased you did that because we’d never have got away with it.’”
“Now if we’d gone to them in the ﬁrst place, they’d have been worrying about liability, would have insisted on a risk assessment, and nothing would have happened. But by ﬁnding a different, winding path, we found ourselves springing off the people willing to make change happen.”
By shaking up convention and shifting expectations, Warhurst wants to see it become normal to have a community kitchen in a hospital or health centre and to grow food in their grounds. Her learnings from this process? “If you want to change something, never wait for someone to do it. We’ll all be dead by then,” she says.
So how exactly does volunteer vegetable growing carve out a path towards a happier and more sustainable society? Well, by challenging the accepted definition of prosperity as purely a reflection of economic growth.
“Large swathes of our population are going to be left behind,” Warhurst says. “The current deﬁnition of prosperity doesn’t apply to the majority. Growth at all costs, any job at any cost, products and food ﬂown all over the planet – these are not and cannot be the ways for us to all live well and prosper. So why are we using GDP as a measure of success when we are overconsuming the planet’s resources? It’s madness.”
“I believe that groups like Incredible Edible should be calling for social capital and natural capital to be measured alongside ﬁnancial capital, to see whether an increasing number of people feel that they are living well in difficult times.”
“There’s a lot of talk around this but actually, there’s not a lot of progress being made. And while I don’t have the answers to this, I do believe that ordinary people are perfectly capable of living better if some powers-that-be just get out of their way.”
Community meets learning meets business
For Warhurst, the Incredible Edible model is successful because it reﬂects the way people actually live their lives.
“It’s not sectoral,” she says. “From the very start, it has always been ‘community meets learning meets business’, without an emphasis on any one of them. This is only common sense but because we’ve cut up society into all these different pieces, it seems as though they are all unconnected. But they’re not. They never were.”
“My plan was not always to grow veg in the middle of Todmorden. It was to demonstrate what people could do by redeﬁning prosperity, then by challenging those who create the frameworks of our lives to make it easier for us all to live well and prosper.”
From Todmorden to the world
As part of her aim of inspiring local authorities to support community action, Warhurst will speak at Disruption Summit Public Sector on 24th March – an online event for senior leaders in digital, technology and transformation roles across the public sector. So, what can we expect from her keynote?
“I’m going to be speaking about the role of anchors and major institutions as we grow the new normal, resourceful communities,” she says. “Our Incredible Edible network continues to expand. We are developing an inspirational leadership programme and testing models of shared ownership and responsibility for the public spaces of our neighbourhoods, where food can build our confidence and wellbeing. There won’t be an individual in the audience who could not help us do that if only they had the will.”
More than just a conference speech, Warhurst’s message is a rallying cry – to find people who can help their communities, their planet, and themselves. In truth, of course, this is all of us, if we really want to.
By thinking differently, working together, and finding innovative solutions to problems, we can build a better – more inclusive – society. And just like the food on our plates, there’s no time to waste.
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